By Bob Ward
Francie Jacober solves algebra problems for fun. In her spare time.
The 7th-8th-grade teacher states it factually, with perhaps a hint of a smile. It’s just who she is, part of her “passion for math.”
Her Carbondale Community School colleagues, however, see it as a reflection of her hard-working, almost superhuman personality. Teachers or not, most of them steer clear of math problems on their weekends.
“She seeks out hard work,” said Kindergarten teacher Ellen Huttenhower of her longtime friend and colleague. “She seeks out challenges.”
Jacober, who is retiring from CCS after 21 years, inspires both admiration and awe among her fellow teachers, parents and friends. Ever competent and purposeful, she strides through each day, driven by an internal dynamo that only she possesses. After 19-20 years as Jacober’s teaching partner, Ted Frisbie still marvels at Jacober’s “blindingly efficient” work habits and her undaunted embrace of any challenge.
“She is so unafraid of things that strike me as really, really hard work,” Frisbie admits. “Like cooking for 200 people.”
But before considering Jacober’s formidable logistical skills, ask yourself: Who better to teach mathematics to middle-school students than someone who solves math problems for fun?
”Francie cares deeply for the well being of her students while holding them to very high expectations,” says Michael Hayes, executive director of Compass, the nonprofit that runs the Carbondale and Aspen community schools. “Through her fierce and caring approach, she leaves an indelible imprint on the students in the 7-8 learning center.”
Or, as Jacober herself states it, a good teacher simply needs to communicate a love of learning to his or her students. “If you don’t care, then why would they care?” she asks.
And there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind — student, educator or parent — that Francie Jacober cares. She’s deeply invested in the CCS educational mission, she devotes countless hours to develop her classroom style, methods and knowledge, and she connects deliberately with each and every one of her students.
Frisbie has learned from Jacober how to run a classroom of middle-schoolers with a careful balance of both authority and respect. “Francie is a very polite person,” he says, “but when she’s talking to kids, very often she won’t say ‘please.’ She’s telling them what to do, and because they like her and respect her, they listen to her.”
There’s no doubt about who’s in charge of Jacober’s classroom. And her strong, decisive personality makes for occasional disagreements. But she also has a nurturing, maternal side that shines through in remarkable ways.
“She’ll just bring in a homemade cake for the whole staff,” says Katie Fales, the 7-8 teacher who will take Jacober’s place next academic year. “And she does all of these thoughtful little things for her kids; she takes time to check in with them, and if they’re taking a hard test she’ll bake little chocolate torts for them.”
All these efforts speak to an extremely intentional person who acts every day in accordance with her values and priorities. And while Jacober’s garden, for example, is a key venue for her hard work and loving care, CCS has been perhaps the most important to her.
“My work and relationships at CCS are a part of how I see myself, of who I am,” she says.
From the moment in 1998 when she first came to work at the school, she had clear and coherent reasons for being there.
“I wanted an environment where the students were more important than the academics,” she says. “Where there were opportunities for success for students whose strengths may not be math and verbal skills. Where social-emotional issues and growth are acknowledged, discussed, talked about. I wanted to teach at a school with heart.”
Over time, the social-emotional aspect of Jacober’s job has arguably become as important to her as the academic aspect. CCS has been a perfect place for Jacober to exercise her “whole child” muscles.
“I definitely have become way more concerned with developing self-confidence in students, helping them develop a moral approach to their decision-making,” she says.
In keeping with this broader definition of schooling, Jacober has invested all of her abundant energy not only in academic rigor and success, but also the other CCS activities that foster character, responsibility, integrity and teamwork. Her leadership and organizational talents have helped to shape extracurricular programs from outdoor education excursions to 18 years of The Big Event to eighth-grade adventures in places like Costa Rica, Puerto Rico and the Florida Keys.
And guess what? She’s really going to miss it — both the people and the endless to-do list. In fact, it’s taken her about two years to fully retire, through a gradual process that included training her replacement and moving to a part-time schedule this year. Even at the age of 72, she says, “I’ll miss the complexity of my life at the school. I like my brain to be busy.”
Accordingly, Francie Jacober will apply the same laser-like focus to her retirement. She’ll avoid travel (she’s traveled the globe already) and mere “pottering around the house.” Instead, she looks forward to an everyday interval of writing at home, continued Cross Fit classes and, of course, long summertime hours in her garden.
“I’m determined to apply discipline to my retirement,” she states.
In her departure, she’ll leave a huge imprint on virtually every aspect of the school she loves. Here’s how Frisbie, her longtime teaching partner, put it in an April 11 tribute that was shared at this year’s Founders’ Day celebration:
“The job application read ‘Math Teacher.’ What CCS hired was 40 parts whirlwind, 40 parts math savant, 15 parts middle school counselor plus three jiggers of crazy old rancher lady and river rat. Gourmet cook for 200 and logistical wizard, Francie sometimes runs past others but never forgets to come back, pick them up and then move forward together. Her peers appreciate her distinct ability to think both deeply and quickly; she is marked both by her clarity on how to keep CCS doing what is best for kids AND her willingness to listen to other’s perspectives. Her students benefit from her admixture of unconditional love and direct passion that is uniquely suited for them. The institution of CCS and all its programs, from ODE to Academics to the Big Event to everything about 7/8 grade portfolio passage is indelibly stamped by the distinctive imprint of Frances Perry Jacober — and for this we are grateful.”
Now that’s a legacy.